An Owner’s Guide to the Utah Fit Premises Act
Kimball A. Forbes, J.
Many of my clients who own residential rental property manage the properties themselves rather than using a property-management company. Most of the time, things are fine. If the renter has a problem, like a broken furnace, the renter calls the owner, and the problem gets fixed. But sometimes owner-renter relations sour. Consequently, I tell my clients, “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.” There is no better way for an owner of residential rental property to follow this advice than by having a written rental agreement and knowing and following the Utah Fit Premises Act (the Act). Every attorney who practices landlord-tenant law should be familiar with the Act. This article provides a review of the main provisions of the Act and practical suggestions on how to advise clients. There are provisions in the Act regarding possession of a residential rental property and also crime victims’ rights that this article does not cover.
The Act codifies duties of owners and renters to maintain residential rental units in a habitable condition and provides specific remedies to renters for violations of the Act by property owners. Utah Code Ann. §§ 57-22-1 to -7; Carlie v. Morgan, 922 P.2d 1, 6 (Utah 1996). The Act applies to all owners, lessors, sublessors, and renters of residential rental property, regardless of whether there is a written rental agreement. See Utah Code Ann. § 57-22-2. The Act calls residential rental property a “residential rental unit” and defines it as the “renter’s principal place of residence and includes the appurtenances, grounds, and facilities held out for the use of the residential renter generally, and any other area or facility provided to the renter in the rental agreement.” Id. § 57-22-2(4). The Act does not apply to “facilities contained in a boarding or rooming house or similar facility, mobile home lot, or recreational property rented on an occasional basis.” Id.
Generally, the Act requires the owner of a residential rental unit to “maintain that unit in a condition fit for human habitation and in accordance with local ordinances and the rules of the board of health having jurisdiction.” Id. § 57-22-3(1). At a Volume 29 No. 4 minimum, a residential unit must have “electrical systems, heating, plumbing, and hot and cold water.” Id. However, the Act does not impose any duties on an owner regarding the “breakage, malfunctions, or other conditions which do not materially affect the physical health or safety of the ordinary renter.” Id. § 57-22-3(3) (emphasis added).
The Act also imposes duties on the renter. In general, a renter must “cooperate in maintaining his [or her] residential rental unit in accordance with [the Act].” Id. § 57-22-3(2). But owners and renters can reallocate any duties identified in the Act in a signed written agreement. Id. § 57-22-3(4). This, of course, should take the form of a written rental agreement (sometimes called a lease). Anybody renting property without a written rental agreement is asking for trouble.
In this article, I will first identify the duties of an owner of a residential rental unit under the Act. I will then identify a renter’s duties. Finally, I will discuss the remedies the Act provides renters and how an owner should respond to a renter who invokes those remedies.
The Act imposes specific requirements on an owner to maintain a residential rental unit “[t]o protect the physical health and safety of the ordinary renter.” Utah Code Ann. § 57-22-4(1). An owner cannot rent property that is not “safe, sanitary, and fit for human occupancy.” Id. § 57-22-4(1)(a). Thus, an owner must, (i) maintain common areas of the residential rental unit in a sanitary and safe condition;
(ii) maintain electrical systems, plumbing, heating, and hot and cold water;
(iii) maintain any air conditioning system in an operable condition; and
(iv) maintain other appliances and facilities as specifically contracted in the rental agreement.
Id. § 57-22-4(1)(b)(i)–(iv). If a property consists of more than one residential rental unit, the owner must provide and maintain garbage cans and garbage removal, unless the renter and owner agree otherwise. Id. § 57-22-4(1)(b)(v). Fortunately, as a matter of common sense, most owners comply with these provisions of the Act without knowing it.
The Act also imposes certain duties on an owner before a rental agreement is signed. Specifically, before entering into a rental agreement, the Act requires an owner to do one of three things: (i) “provide the prospective renter a written inventory of the condition of the residential rental unit, excluding ordinary wear and tear”; (ii) “furnish the renter a form to document the condition of the residential rental unit and then allow the resident a reasonable time after the renter’s occupancy of the residential rental unit to complete and return the form”; or (iii) “provide the...